Big Daddy is in trouble again, this time for allegedly calling Haiti and most African nations "shithole countries." President Donald Trump denies the specific phrase, but let's give him a pass on this one, because he's right in the largest sense possible: Most immigrants who come to America do indeed come from places they'd rather not live or work. By definition. Whether their homelands are technically shitholes or something less offensive to contemporary ears isn't really a question. People come here because they think it's going to be better than where they're from.
It was true of all of my grandparents and all of your ancestors, too, if you're American. We all have roots elsewhere.
The promise of America, since before its founding as a country, is precisely that you can start over here. Even within the country, the ability to strike out for the territory and begin again motivated many of our most mythic figures, from Natty Bumppo to Sam Houston to Huck Finn to Pa Ingalls in the Little House books. I apologize for dragging my family history into every goddamn post I write these days, but their experience speaks directly to the current nativist moment. When my grandparents left Ireland and Italy in the early 20th century, they were leaving shithole countries if such things have ever existed. They weren't starving because they worked on farms and in fishing towns, but they had no future and not much of a present in those places. Like millions of others, they left farms in the old country and packed themselves like sardines into cities in the new. That was 100 years ago and, as every yahoo on Twitter has seen fit to tell me in the past 24 hours, Things were different back then! No welfare state! Those countries were part of the "West," which is best!
Well, there was a welfare state, at least as it pertains to what today's immigrants (legal and illegal) qualify for, which is basically school for your kids and emergency medical care. Since the mid-1990s, when Bill Clinton was re-elected partly on the strength of his promises to end illegal immigration, illegals don't qualify for transfer payments (to the extent that immigrants, legal or otherwise, manage to cadge food stamps and the like, it's a rounding error in federal and state budgets). My mother, the daughter of Italians, didn't speak English until she went to public school (for free!) in Waterbury, Connecticut. My father, the son of Irish immigrants, went to St. Augustine's in Brooklyn for free because the Catholic order running the place during the Depression had a glancing familiarity with the New Testament and Christ's injunctions to help the poor and downtrodden. More important, the whole argument about the welfare state being overloaded is a regular laff riot, isn't it? The mostly conservative types who are anti-immigrant are always (and often rightly) bitching and moaning about welfare suddenly become its biggest defenders when a goddamn Haitian or Salvadoran shows up here to work long hours pulling Slurpees at the local 7-11. And that Milton Friedman chestnut about how you can't simultaneously "have free immigration and a welfare state"? He was, uncharacteristically, wrong, as a matter of fact and on principle. Lots of countries have both.
Then there's the argument that runs along the "but your grandparents and parents came from Europe and a tradition of limited government and soap and Winston Churchill and didn't vote Democrat…" Let's be clear: America has always been highly ambivalent about immigration, at least since Ben Franklin fretted that German-speaking Catholics could never really fit in to the culture of colonial Pennsylvania. I imagine that native Americans, including and maybe especially Squanto, who met the Mayflower and greeted them in English(!), felt this disquiet even earlier. In my family's case, being Catholic in pre-World War II America was not a point in their favor, because being Catholic meant that you worshiped the Whore of Babylon, ate fish on Friday, and practiced ritual cannibalism while having a lot of brats (all true). Catholics are the single-largest religious affiliation in the U.S. now but back then they were scary enough to "real" Americans in the 1910s and '20s that the Ku Klux Klan reformed in large part to fight against their willingness to booze it up and ball like rabbits in increasingly mongrelized cities (read The Great Gatsby again!). Prohibition, supported by the Klan and other WASP elites, was as much about keeping the Catholics—the wops and the micks especially—down. Italy sent only anarchists and wasn't even a real country until it became a dangerous imperial power under Mussolini, right, and for god's sake, Ireland was run by a bunch of potato-snorting apes prone to violence and singing and bomb-throwing.
Oh, and one more thing: The wretched refuse washing up on the East Coast had it easy compared to the Asians flooding the West Coast. The very first broad-based (which is to say racist) immigration restrictions were leveled against Chinese migrants in 1882. Back then, euphemisms were less common so a complete ban on Chinese people coming here to work was simply called The Chinese Exclusion Act. Anti-Chinese animus was virulent enough that it underwrote the single-biggest mass lynching in American history, which took place in Los Angeles in 1871. It was followed by less overt but no less sweeping legislation to keep Japanese out. Long before they became "model minorities," Asians were barred from coming here. They persisted, though, and America is a better place for their willingness to route around racism and attempts to keep them out.
So it's the worst sort of anachronism to pretend that past immigrants were welcomed here because they've become model Americans since their ancestors first showed their undersized and sloping brows, over-sized noses and lips, and dark and slanted eyes.
And it bears restating, over and over again: The point of America is not where you're from, it's what you do when you show up here. And we know exactly what immigrants, whether legal or not, do when they get here. They pay taxes, including Social Security taxes that they have no chance of ever seeing again. They commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born counterparts. They "are responsible for significant economic growth." They start businesses at higher rates and use welfare at lower rates than their made-in-the-U.S.A. analogues. They fight our nation's wars.
Trump is right to stress that people originally granted "temporary protected status" cannot and should not expect to have that status constantly extended. He's right, too, that Congress should fix the issue of "dreamers"—of kids brought here illegally as minors or born to illegals—once and for all via legislation. But he and all the nativists are wrong in thinking that America, this great, bruising, hulk of a nation, would be better off with fewer immigrants from fewer shitholes (the Republican Party is calling for a 50 percent reduction in legal immigration). It's the people fleeing shitholes who have helped to make this country great. And isn't that what Trump promised us back in 2016?